Good leaders often ask this question: what would set us up for success? Most of the time the answer is simple. Master the fundamentals. By being good at the basics—like being committed to consistent governance systems and applying respectful, inclusive communication to discussions and decisions—success as a board member is most-likely assured. Yet, it’s harder than it looks in practice. That’s exactly why fundamentals are so essential.
Todd Wallace, board leadership consultant said, “It’s especially important not to abandon fundamentals in a tough environment. If you don’t have good systems of communication, you can’t make decisions, or even create a future.” He noted that we are in “an era of change.” To continue to do well, boards need to accept that change is going to impact their work and continue to focus on those things that will allow them to navigate with a steady hand. For example, mature co-ops may be faced with management retirement. Increased competition requires courageous leadership to reexamine our core expectations and shopper needs. Growth and development will be continually challenged by ensuring adequate capital and organizational alignment with all stakeholders for both startups and established operations.
“Without continually creating alignment with the vision, the co-op will be in a reactive, not proactive position,” Wallace said. In that situation, the co-op won’t be able to focus on strategic work, much less weather a crisis. “Boards are being tested in ways they’ve never been tested before.”
From Wallace’s perspective, current leadership demands are twofold: boards need leaders who can manage change and make effective decisions. Having those skills and being able to execute them well, boards will be able to better facilitate transitions in leadership, including the natural attrition of the board, as well as general manager hiring and succession.
Regarding change overall, boards may find that they have to quickly realign their focus if something changes, and re-establish goals. Change is not just something that happens internally. “The board needs to understand that they need to communicate those changes to their members, community and media,” Wallace said.
To continue to do good work, Wallace also said that boards with an “abundance mindset” tend to perform better than those concerned about scarcity. “You can’t ‘save’ your way to prosperity. Now is not the time to stop investing in the co-op’s leadership. You need that more than ever to get through challenges.”
Wallace suggested a commitment to these fundamental tactics are necessary to addressing change and challenges:
- List action items, create next steps
- Execute them with grace, efficiency and excellence
- Engage support
- Utilize resources readily available (CDS CC Library, toolboxes)
“You might not have a giant fund to draw from, but you can leverage expertise. Not just to survive but thrive,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to share when you have problems. It takes a lot of courage and doesn’t need to derail the work you’re doing.”
Jade Barker, board leadership consultant, said that continually developing communication skills is always a great place to focus. “There are a lot of skills involved in group work, and those abilities can always be improved,” she said. Barker believes that fundamentally a shared framework for roles and the understanding that each participant is part of the same team is imperative for boards working well together. People also need to understand why it’s important that they follow established systems, especially for decision-making. Without that basic structure in place, “it can cause extra grief and strife along the way. All the systems in the world are not helpful if you don’t use them.”
Since decision-making is one of the board’s roles, Barker believes that knowing how to be most effective at it is also part of a strong foundation. She thinks governance decision-making and good communication leadership includes the following qualities:
- Ability to delegate, and being ok delegating appropriate decisions, too
- Demonstrating clarity about roles
- Maintaining board discipline regarding agreements
- Engaging in active listening
Barker also thinks that participatory decision-making in general, one where all stakeholders are involved and considered, is not a commonly practiced skill. “Sometimes what people think are discussions are really debates. The idea that there’s one right answer or that there are good guys and bad guys is not always helpful.” She said that if a board comes to a 5-4 vote on something, it may be worth talking about the issue longer. She suggested keeping an open mind and thinking in terms of “both/and” rather than “either/or.”
She thinks that the best boards do what they can to get the most information possible, and then make a decision. “The more info they have, the better their decisions tend to be.” She cautioned against boards making snap decisions because what people know and experience from their everyday lives may not be enough information to make a quick decision. “Boards are deliberate bodies,” Barker added.
Ultimately, Barker said a board wants to establish and maintain systems that work so everyone can participate. “The co-op’s integrity and values are important to people. It’s hard to have good outcomes without that,” she said.
Wallace also thinks that without good systems, problems can blow up, sometimes publicly, forcing the co-op to deal with a crisis. “Not addressing things makes it worse and more painful,” he said.
“One thing that inspires me is when people rise to the occasion, not just putting out fires, but with an eye toward the future, to cultivate a culture of excellence to thrive,” he said. Whether the challenge is racial inequity, workers’ rights, fair economies, suffrage—whatever the movement—it is always ordinary people who were willing to stand up and lead that created lasting change. “There are leaders who are not going to shy away from challenges and will see them as opportunities to innovate,” Wallace said. “Those people exist in this era, and this is when new heroes are made.”